NASA extends its Ingenuity helicopter mission to scout an ancient delta on Mars
The Ingenuity helicopter was originally designed to conduct the first controlled flight on another planet and then fly a further four times before retiring.
The helicopter has now just completed its 21st flight, and is on the verge of completing a whole year of operations on Mars. What's more, NASA announced this week that it has extended the Martian helicopter's operations through September.
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NASA extends Ingenuity's Mars missions
For its upcoming flights, the helicopter will essentially serve as an aerial scout for the Perseverance rover as it investigates an ancient river delta in the Jezero Crater, in its search for signs of ancient alien life. It marks the first time the Ingenuity helicopter will fly over rough terrain, as it will make its way over the cliffs and rocky outcrops of the ancient delta that reach up to 40 meters above the Martian surface.
"This upcoming flight will be my 22nd entry in our logbook," said Ingenuity chief pilot Håvard Grip at JPL in NASA's statement. "I remember thinking when this all started, we'd be lucky to have three entries and immensely fortunate to get five. Now, at the rate we're going, I'm going to need a second book."
Ingenuity will help the Perseverance team decide which dry river channel the rover should traverse as it makes its way to the top of the delta. The helicopter will also capture images that will allow the team to assign specific targets of interest for the rover to investigate.
Ingenuity is now playing a key role for NASA on Mars
The Ingenuity helicopter has gone from being an experimental flight machine to becoming a key part of NASA's mission on Mars. The U.S. space agency explains that it may also deploy the helicopter to scout potential landing zones for the Mars Sample Return program, which will collect Perseverance rock samples and return them to Earth by the 2030s.
"Less than a year ago we didn't even know if powered, controlled flight of an aircraft at Mars was possible," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, explained in a statement. "Now, we are looking forward to Ingenuity's involvement in Perseverance's second science campaign. Such a transformation of mindset in such a short period is simply amazing, and one of the most historic in the annals of air and space exploration."
The Ingenuity team has made software upgrades allowing Ingenuity to reach altitudes higher than its previous cap of 15 meters off the ground, and also reach a higher airspeed. Ingenuity's next flight will take place on March 19, and it will see the helicopter travel 350 meters up in the direction of the delta.
The Perseverance mission has made history on several occasions, such as by providing incontrovertible evidence that the Jezero Crater was once a massive lake. Perseverance also carried Ingenuity to Mars, where it carried out the first controlled flight on the red planet in April last year. Since that time, the helicopter has spent a total of 38 minutes in the air and has clocked up a total 2.9 travel miles.